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tv   Religion Ethics Newsweekly  PBS  March 6, 2011 10:00am-10:30am PST

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>> we're not terrorist suspects. coming up, u.s. muslim groups working to prevent extremism from taking hold in their communities. >> we're not terrorist suspects. we are america's brightest prospects. plus, author mary karr on battling alcoholism and depression, and finding a haven in the roman catholic church.
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welcome. i'm kim lawton, sitting in for bob abernethy. thank you for joining us. international humanitarian groups raced to help refugees fleeing the violence and chaos in libya this week. more than 200,000 people have arrived at the borders between libya and tunisia and egypt. the international red cross and red crescent societies are leading efforts to provide food, water, and sanitation, as well as medical help for the wounded. islamic relief has deployed teams of doctors and aid workers. and libya's small christian community sought help for people who have taken refuge in churches and church-run facilities. religious and political leaders around the world condemned the assassination of shahbaz bhatti, the only christian to serve in pakistan's
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cabinet. bhatti was shot to death in his car. a roman catholic, he was pakistan's minister of minorities. bhatti was well-known for his opposition to the country's controversial blasphemy law, which can carry a death sentence for insulting islam. human rights activists say his murder raises severe concerns about the welfare of religious minorities in pakistan. in this country, the supreme court ruled that a small, controversial church has the right to hold anti-gay protests at military funerals. members of westboro baptist church often picket events, including military funerals carrying signs that say "god is punishing america for its tolerance of homosexuality." in an 8-1 decision, the justices ruled that while the signs may be hurtful and offensive, the speech is still protected under the constitution. the sole dissenter was justice samuel alito, who said westboro's message is a vicious verbal assault that should not be legal.
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faith-based groups stepped up lobbying efforts as congress continues to battle over potential budget cuts. religious conservatives maintain that addressing the government's massive debt is a moral issue. meanwhile, a diverse interfaith coalition urged members of congress to consider how cuts would hurt poor people in the us and around the world. as part of that effort, several prominent christian leaders launched a new ad campaign asking "what would jesus cut?" joining me with more on this is kevin eckstrom, editor of religion news service. kevin, there's been a huge mobilization it seems from many quarters of the religious community on these budget issues. >> right, and you're seeing it from both the left and the right. from the left, the more progressive side, you see traditional lobbying to keep programs like home heating assistance and school lunches and aid for, you know, women and children, sort of your bread and butter domestic issues. on the right, you're seeing a lot of action to try to protect
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the international development assistance, money to buy mosquito nets to prevent malaria and to fight aids in africa, food for the hungry and refugees, and things like that. so you've got various groups lobbying for various issues, each hoping that their preferred pot makes the cut. >> and a lot of those folks, both on the left and the right, are using moral language and scriptural language, saying you know the bible urges people to care, look out for the vulnerable, the widows, the orphans, and the least of these. and so you are seeing this sort of biblical language. >> right. and it's biblical language on both sides. the more traditional churches, catholic bishops, and your mainline churches, and your jewish groups are saying, you know, we have a biblical and ethical, moral obligation to care for people who can't help themselves. on the other side, from the more conservative side, especially from the tea party, you have arguments saying that it's actually immoral to leaveebt to tureenerations. and they sometimes chafe at the
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notion of, you know, what would jesus cut? they say, well, jesus didn't have opinions on this. you know, that it's up to us to sort of make the decisions on what to cut. but you get various moral arguments from both sides and we're just waiting to see who wins the day. >> well, i was at the national religious broadcasters convention this week and one of their keynote speakers was house speaker, john boehner, catholic, who used a lot of biblical language in his speech. he had a very receptive, mostly evangelical audience, and he quoted scripture, he quoted from proverbs"a gd man leaves behind an inheritance to his children's children." and he said, republicans want to not just be hearers of the word, but doers of the word, another scriptural reference there. and you know i found that very interesting that you had the congressional leadership on the right also trying to seize the biblical and moral language on all of this. >> yeah, and its going on on both sides in sort of different directions. even, i think, one of the more interesting splits has been within the evangelical community where you have sort of small government evangelicals
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who want to cut, you know, we need to balance the budget, we can't ve ts debt. and then you have another portion of the evangelicals who say well, we can, government can do good things and government can make a difference in parts of the world where we have interests, and it's not just moral interests, its strategic interests. and so let's protect the programs that actually work. let's not cut from aids funding, for example, which president bush poured a lot of money into. so, you get this interesting divide within especially the conservative religious community over their political loyalties and sortf thr regiou underpinnings. >> and some of those moral arguments i've been hearing, i'm sorry, the pragmatic arguments i've been hearing, in additional to the moral ones, are that it's in america's national security, that folks around the world who have food and a decent job and a place to live and have a good stable social situation are less likely to be recruited by terrorists. or they also just say, america's
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reputation, as well. i know when i was in sri lanka after the tsunami and the u.s. poured in so much help or haiti, u.s. poured in so much help, that really want a long way to improving america's image arounthe world. >> right, i mean, you've been to all these places, you can see the difference that it makes when you've got these bags of rice that come in with the american flag on it and people look at that and they see us as a good country. but there are sort of national security arguments to be made and think they are fairly effective that people who are fed, who have good schools and who don't have to worry about what they are going to eat that night are less likely to be recruited into extremism. >> we'll both be watching in the weeks to come. >> thanks. in other news, a delegation of 50 jewish leaders met with president obama at the white house this week. they discussed current events in the middle east and the future of the peace process. the president reiterated america's support for israel's security.
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but participants said the president also asserted that many palestinians do not believe israel is serious about making certain concessions to achieve peace. some of the jewish leaders described the meeting as positive, but others reportedly said they sensed hostility toward israel. faith-based groups are raising concerns about congressional hearings scheduled to start this coming week on radicalization among american muslims. several religious leaders have urged the house committee on homeland security to ensure that the hearings don't demonize all muslims. at a briefing sponsored by the muslim public affairs council, participants urged politicians to condemn rising islamophobia. >> it's an important opportunity for congressional members to make it clear that such a focus one faith-based community is unfair and contradicts our nation's values, and especially as we are nearing the ten-year anniversary of 9/11." >> meanwhile, over the past year, several leading u.s.
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muslim groups launched new projects aimed at preventing extremism from taking hold in their communities. last fall, i took a look at some of those efforts. >> reporter: it's late afternoon in manassas, virginia, not far outside washington, d.c., and at the dar al noor mosque they're getting ready for a good all-american barbecue. the picnic is part of a new national initiative from the muslim-american society called the straight path campaign. it's one of several new projects being launched by u.s. islamic groups in an effort to fight extremism within their community, particularly among young people. >> we want them to say to america and prove to america through their efforts that, you know, we're not terrorist suspects. we are america's brightest prospects. >> reporter: according to a new poll by the pew research center, americans hold conflicted views about whether islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions.
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42% of those surveyed said that islam does not encourage violence more than others, 35% said it does, and almost a quarter said they didn't know. the survey also found that almost 40% of americans said they had an unfavorable view toward islam. that's a significant increase from just five years ago. since the terrorist attacks on september 11, 2001, many american muslims say it's become increasingly difficult to counter the perception that their faith is linked to vilence, andhat job has en complicated by some recent high-profile terrorism-related arrests of muslim americans, including several who were born or raised in the u.s. >> the fact that there have been a string of incidents presents a reality that we cannot afford to ignore, regardless of whether it's emanating from our own homes, or our own mosques, or our own communities. >> reporter: a duke university study released earlier this year found only a relatively small number of u.s. muslims who had planned or carried out terrorist attacks.
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the study concluded "homegrown terrorism is serus, t lited, problem." >> one is one too many, and so we have zero tolerance for that kind of seductive narrative and that seductive type of presentation that lures young people into things that will ultimately ruin their lives. >> reporter: one of the first priorities for mainstream u.s. muslim groups has been trying to fight extremist messages online, including many from foreign-based, english-speaking americans. >> i am calling on every honest and vigilant muslim, unsheathe your sharpened sword and rush to take your rightful place among defiant champions of islam. >> what happens in extremist groups is that there's a cult mentality. there's blind following of a charismatic leader, these pied
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pipers that are speaking to us now on youtube from caves and jungles and war zones that are trying to glamorize violence. that's basically what we're dealing with. >> reporter: hoping to offer a different view, american imam suhaib webb has set up his own website where he challenges radical statements and answers questions about islamic teachings. >> you know the prophet, peace be upon him, said "if the day of judgment starts and you have a seed in your hand, plant that seed." stay positive. never allow yourself to succumb to that negativdiscourse. >> he's been urging other muslims to tackle the issue of extremism head on as well. >> if you're not going to take the position, someone else will take that position for you. if you're not going to step up to the mike, someone else is going to grab it and spit. that's just the reality. >> reporter: webb says a major problem is that many of the radical websites twist and misrepresent islamic teachings, either intentionally or through ignorance. he was one of nine u.s. scholars and imams who denounced extremism in a recent video produced by the muslim public
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affairs council. >> communities really need to focus on religious literacy so that our young people start at an early age knowing what the koran actually says and what the koran actually promotes us to do, which is to be a part of society, to be contributing, and to be good to our families, and to be model citizens within whatever countries we live in. >> reporter: with the straight path campaign, the muslim-american society is also trying to educate muslim young people about the tenets of their faith. imam mahdi bray draws from his own experience in the u.s. civil rights movement and talks about the importance of nonviolence within islam as well. >> nonviolence, the sanctity of life, is valued, and it's not the sanctity of muslim life. it's the sanctity of all life. >> reporter: the campaign is holding a series of meetings with youth and youth leaders across the country to discuss violence and islam, and also how to address injustice and discrimination in positive ways. bray says it's important not to dismiss the very real concerns and frustrations among young
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muslims. >> providing young people with skill sets and tools that embrace nonviolence but at the same time doesn't give them the feeling that they're just rolling over and that they're not really fighting back against some of the injustices that they see every day in their lives, both here and abroad. >> we don't separate islam from politics. this is actually an act of worship for us. >> reporter: the muslim publ affairs council is trying to help young muslims address their concerns through the political process. the group holds a young leaders summit in washington, where participants learn how government works. >> it's easy for somebody to exploit people's angers and frustrations and lead them to destructive behavior, so our approach is promoting the theology of life within islam, that islam is meant to be a part of a pluralistic society. >> reporter: the students see the mechanics of politics up close and get to meet with
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politicians, this year including minnesota representative keith ellison and indiana representative andre carson, the only two muslims in congress. organizers say the experience gives young muslims a new vision for what can be accomplished. >> in a post- 9/11 reality, they sometimes have a hard time believing that their own government and their own elected officials want to hear from them, or even care about their opinions, because what they see on their campuses and in their hometowns is a rising level of islamophobia. >> reporter: the various projects are intended to be proactive against radicalism, but they have also provoked controversy. several outsiders have accused the campaigns and their leaders of not being tough enough against extremism, while some muslims fear the new initiatives could give the impression that the problem is bigger than it really is. >> some of the young people said, "uh, yeah, before you get going on that, make sure it doesn't portray us all as so-
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called radicalized," that that's a danger as well -- to project something that isn't there. >> some muslims have accused bray of perpetuating anti- islamic stereotypes. >> there are some who say, oh, there's no problem, everything is just fine, you know? well, everything is not just fine. >> reporter: american muslim leaders say their young people, like young people of all faiths, are trying to figure out their identities, and, the leaders say, religion should be a culturally relevant part of the mix. >> islam is a religion that has a book that is supposed to be universal and is supposed to apply at different times. therefore, it is our responsibility to interpret the princeles from the koran and the traditions of the prophet to america in the 21st century, and by and large that has not been done. >> reporter: it's a matter that hits all too close to home for students like these. >> saying that everybody, all muslims are terrorists is a big issue, so like it makes people feel left out, especially in
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schools, they're like, "wow, am i really like that?" >> reporter: the words terrorist and muslim are not synonymous in any way, shape or form. >> reporter: and that's the ultimate message they hope takes hold. >> an update -- on december 30th, mahdi bray suffered a serious stroke. i spoke with his office this week and they told me he's now recuperating at home and doing physical rehabilitation. they say they're optimistic about his recovery. in los angeles, the nation's largest catholic diocese, a transfer of power this week. archbishop jose gomez succeeded cardinal roger mahony. mahony stepped down on his 75th birthday, the date by which catholic bishops are required to submit their request to retire. he will remain active in his role as cardinal. gomez, meanwhile, is the first latino to lead the archdiocese. we have a story now about poet and author mary karr. her candid memoir called "lit" describes how she battled
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alcoholism and depression, and found a haven in the roman catholic church. judy alente spoke with her. >> every poem probably has 60 afts behind it. >> reporter: mary karr talks about her love of poetry with students at a writers' conference in michigan. >> hello, honey-bun. >> reporter: karr was known mainly as a poet until her coming-of-age memoir, "the liars' club," became a bestseller in the 1990s. it as the vivid story of a sometimes hilarious but often brutal texas childhood. here's a snapshot of your past, the past that you write about -- troubled family life, unstable childhood, alcoholism, divorce, depression, near suicide. who is mary karr today? >> well, it's really been uphill since all that. >> reporter: karr reveals the rest of her story in a new memoir, a story summed up in its title, "lit," as in lit from
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within by the literature she grew up with, by alcohol and drugs, and finally lit by a faith she found unexpectedly in the catholic church. >> no one in the catholic church hired me as a spokesperson, nor would they. i'm sure i'm not the pope's favorite catholic, nor is he mine. >> reporter: karr grew up amid the hardscrabble oil fields of east texas. her father drank himself to death. her mother was married seven times. >> i'm somebody who really does feel like i was snatched out of the fire and found something in myself that's luminous and gives me ballast. >> reporter: the road to faith was a long, hard climb for someone who once described herself as an "undiluted agnostic." by her mid-30s karr's life had begun to unravel. her marriage was failing. she drank heavily, wrecked the family car, was hospitalized for an emotional breakdown.
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in desperation, she took a friend's advice and reluctantly began to pray. >> i would kind of bounce on my knees, and i would say, "higher power, please keep me sober today," whatever they told me to say, and then at night i would say, "thank you for keeping me sober today," and then i started to express myself, which was often, you know, with obscene gestures, double-barrel at the light fixtures. >> reporter: karr was newly separated and trying to stay sober when her 5-year-old son asked her to take him to church. >> and i said, why? and he said the only sentence he could have said, that would have gotten me to church. he said, "to see if god's there," and i thought, "oh, okay." >> reporter: karr took her son to various churches, a process she dubbed the "god-o-rama." she would sit with a paperback and a cup of coffee while he searched for god. >> we got out, and we got in the car, and he's buckling his seatbelt, and i said, "so was god there?" and he's like, "well, yeah,"
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like where were you? so that was when deced tt, for him, we would find a place of worship. >> reporter: karr says she still equated most organized religions with something people just did socially. then one day she passed a catholic church in syracuse, new york, where she was teaching. she was struck by a banner out front. it said, "sinners welcome." >> i thought i had a better shot at becoming a pole dancer at 40, right, than of making it in the catholic church, and i think what struck me reallwasn'the grandeuof the mass. it was the simple faith of the people. for me this whole journey was a journey into awe. i would just get these moments of quiet where there wasn't anything. my head would just shut up, and i knew that was a good thing. and also the carnality of the church. there was a body on the cross.
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>> reporter: father bruno shah, a dominican friar, is a close friend who has written about karr's work. >> in the catholic church above, the altar, one sees the cross with the body on it. the body is there. the corpus of christ is there bleeding, still in the midst of the world, and that's i think really what got to her, her experience of being a sinner, her experience of being a sinner and recognizing that this does not distinguish her from anybody else in the world. >> reporter: many of her recent poems reimagine the life of christ. she sees in poetry a form of prayer. >> poetry is, for me, eucharistic. you take someone else's suffering into your body, their passion comes into your body, and in doing that you commune, you take communion, you make a community with others. >> reporter: karr has been sober for 20 years, but she still prays to keep her demons at bay.
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>> i don't have very much virtue now. it's really all of it is grace for me, all of it is given. i'm a very venal, i want to eat all of the chocolate and snort all of the cocaine and kiss all the boys. >> the fact that this person would turn around so drastically is compelling. she sees all the alcoholics who don't make it. she sees all the good chances that have been given to her for no good reason, and she asks in wondering thanksgiving to god, why me? and that's a great testimony to her faith and to the authenticity of her conversion. >> reporter: a conversion, she says, transformed every aspect of her life. >> my goal in writing about my faith wasn't to proselytize, even though i did feel called in prayer to write about it, but to try to make a bridge bween people who had been like myself, completely unbaptized, completely without faith, a
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bridge between that, and to bring them into the experience of faith. >> reporter: karr says she hopes her turbulent past provides more than just a good story but also sends out a message of hope to others. with her characteristic wry humor, she still refers to herself as a "black-belt sinner," but a lucky one nonetheless. >> i've never contended that i had a really horrible life. i fe like jesus does like me better than he does all of you. >> reporter: for "religion and ethics newsweekly," i'm judy valente in grand rapids, michigan. prominent preacher, author and theologian peter gomes died this week of complications from a stroke. he was 68. for more than 30 years, gomes was pastor of harvard university's memorial church. he also taught at the divinity school there. gomes was a political conservative who described himself as a "celibate-by- choice" gay minister. he was a relentless voice for tolerance, and he was widely
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considered one of the nation's best preachers. finally, on our calendar, members of the baha'i faith continue their 19-day fast in preparation for their new year. a fasting season also begins for christians this week. on march 7th, eastern christians will mark clean monday, the beginning of great lent, a period of prayer and fasting before pascha, or easter. for western christians, lent begins later in the week, on ash wednesday, when many will attend services and have ashes placed on their foreheads as a symbol of penance and mortality. that's our program for now. i'm kim lawton. we have much more on our website where you can comment on all of our stories and share them. audio and video podcasts are also available. you can follow us on twitter and facebook, where i have a fan page too. you can also find us on youtube, and watch us anytime, anywhere on smartphones and iphones with our mobile web app.
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join us at pbs.org. as we leave you, scenes from india as hindus honored lord shiva, their god of destruction and renewal.
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